Reading with neighbors: ‘Water for Elephants’ is this year’s ‘one book’
July 21, 2007
When Jacob Jankowski, pushing 90 years and in a nursing home, recalls his experience at 23, he unwittingly illustrates an entire novel with adventure, romance and a menagerie of exotic creatures. It was the age Jankowski learned his parents died in a horrific accident, and the year he dropped out of Cornell University as a veterinary student to join the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was 1932.
Jankowski is Sara Gruen’s narrator in her Depression-era novel, "Water for Elephants," a book that has spent a dozen weeks on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Best-Seller List and currently ranks No. 1. It is the book chosen by the Park City Library for "One Book, One Community," the library’s effort to get Park City readers on the same page (or pages).
"One Book" is an invitation from the Park City Library Board for the community to read together. Librarians ordered 24 copies of the book in various formats, including large print and audio, for the library and 34 copies that were passed out throughout the community to share. Currently, there is a waiting list, but it’s a quick read, according to librarian Merry White, who says she finished the book in two days.
Her review: "It’s a very good story not perfect or a great work of literature but it’s engaging, because it’s a world most of us may not know a lot about, a traveling circus in the Depression Era, the history and the language and the interpersonal relationships among its inhabitants. The author did several months of research before she started writing and it shows."
Several discussions for the community have also been organized, including one last Monday by the library and the Park City Historical Society’s curator of education Johanna Fassbender. The book group met in the historic jail at the museum, and longtime Park City residents, including Mel Fetcher, Jim Santy, Thelma Uriarte and Ted and Wilma Larremore, were invited as special guests.
The idea behind the chat was to integrate a local historical perspective with anecdotes from panelists on the Depression. "People read books about places and it sounds exciting and interesting, and they don’t really think about the same kind of stories that are right here, in their own town," Fassbender said. "Using books is really a great tool to get people interested in their own history."
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However, those who can remember the Depression recall the era as children, Fassbender noted, not as adults, as Gruen does in "Water for Elephants." The hardships and the adversity, therefore, do not ring a bell. At the discussion, one of the bigger events they remembered was the consolidation of elementary schools in the newly built Works Progress Administration
(WPA)-funded Marsac Building, now City Hall.
"It may have been hard for parents to provide food and shelter, but most of the panelists said they had a great time," Fassbender said.
Instead of the 1930s and 1940s, the panel of longtime Parkites agreed that Park City’s Depression came in the 1950s when the price of silver plummeted, mines closed and the town’s population dwindled to around 1,000.
Wilma Larremore, born in 1928, remembers having a good time as a child during the Depression, though she says she lived with six other family members in a two-bedroom house at 605 Woodside Avenue. There were no resorts, but high school kids built ski jumps on the side of the mountain on Woodside Ave. Later, she would buy a ticket for the first ride up the mountain through the mining tunnel with her kids in 1964.
The 1950s had a different tone, and she remembers her brother and father, Park City’s fire chief, outside the Main Street welfare office in 1958. At the time, most mines had closed. "Everybody was moving away," she says.
Larremore remembers being grateful that the government was helping Park City by helping to launch a ski resort. "It was a real boon, then, when Park City was becoming a ghost town."
Bette Scarlet, who has helped to run youth book groups at the Park City Library, hosted the book talk with Fassbender.
Scarlet said there are few people who can remember suffering during the Depression, but the next generation can glean a little from what they recall about their parents and grandparents.
"Most of the attendees were raised by people who had been raised in the Depression," Scarlet observed. "Our parents were very careful of money you know, clean your plate, and there were no extravagances. Everyone had a tight budget. It was an interesting way to be raised I even had to ask before using the telephone."
For the occasion, Scarlet and Fassbender researched last time a circus came to town, finding a photo of a banner from 1916 and a flyer in a newspaper from 1936. But aside from those artifacts and a few stories, the book has little to do with a ski town in Utah.
"Water for Elephants" is finally a book that isn’t tied to Park City’s history so as much as it is tying the community in the present, according to Scarlet.
"I love [the "One Book" program,]" she said. "You could be any place in town, and you could turn to a neighbor or a friend or acquaintance and say, ‘did you read it?’ You have something to talk about. It gives everyone a common experience .We should do this twice a year."
There are two more book chats for "Water for Elephants" scheduled by the Park City Library: one at the Park City Senior Center at 1361 Norfolk Ave. at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 26 and another, hosted by Chris Cherniak, Park City Library Board president, at the Library on July 30 at 4:30 p.m.. For more information about "Water for Elephants," and to reserve a chance to check out a copy, call (435) 615-5600. The library is located at 1255 Park Ave.
Like "Water for Elephants?"
Suggestions by Park City Library Librarian Merry White
-"To Kill a Mockingbird"
By Harper Lee
-"The Ponder Heart"
By Eudora Welty
-"The Memory Keeper’s Daughter"
By Kim Edwards
By Charles Frazier
-"Master Butchers Singing Club"
By Louise Erdrich
-"The Bean Trees"
By Barbara Kingsolver
By Diane Setterfield